The poem first appeared in the Just So Stories in 1902. Part 1 follows the story “How the First Letter was Written” and Part 2 comes after the next story “How the Alphabet was Made”. They have no title there. They appear as “Merrow Down” when collected in Songs from Books and subsequently in Inclusive Verse, Definitive Verse, and the Sussex and Burwash editions.
When “How the First Letter was Written” was printed in the Ladies’ Home Journal in December 1901 it did not have the poem with it. “How the Alphabet was Made” was not published in a magazine before it appeared in the book.
The final verse of Part 2 must be the saddest verse in all Kipling’s works. Josephine, his much-loved eldest daughter, died of pneumonia in March 1899. (Kipling had pneumonia at the same time and almost died as well. It was some time before his doctors would allow him to be told of her death.) This poem shows how very deeply he still missed her three years later.
Most critics agree that Kipling’s story “They”, published in 1904, is part of his on-going process of grieving. The narrator comes across a house inhabited by the ghosts of dead children, recognises his own daughter among them, and realises that he must not come again. Lord Birkenhead (p. 314) links the story and the poem: Kipling’s tender, personal side, so fiercely guarded, so much his own secret property, was revealed cautiously in the allegory “They”, and more fully in “Merrow Down.
Notes on the Text
[Title] Merrow Down Merrow was a village in Surrey, now a suburb of Guildford.
[Verse 1] the river Wey, a tributary of the Thames which flows through Guildford
[Verse 2] dark Phoenicians The Phoenicians, a sea-faring people from what is now Syria, are thought to have come to Cornwall in prehistoric times to trade for tin, an essential component of bronze. See Verse 3 line 4.
[Verse 3] Whitby jet Jet is a black mineral which takes a high polish and is used for ornaments. Whitby in Yorkshire is the best-known source in England.
[Verse 4] Taffy One of the nicknames of Kipling’s lost daughter Josephine [Thomas Pinney (Ed.) Letters II p. 310, letter to C.E. Norton, 16 Aug. 1897].
[Verse 5] Bramley, Shere, Shamley Places near Guildford,
[Verse 4] elf-locks a mass of tangled hair.
[Verse 5] damp-wood smoke a fire with damp wood on it to make smoke and show up at a distance.
[Verse 6] See the Introduction
© Philip Holberton 2014 All rights reserved